By James Gao
One month before the special U.S. Senate election in Alabama, accused sexual predator Roy Moore was poised to take the vacant Congressional seat and strengthen the Republicans’ majority in the legislature. Meanwhile, progressives from all across the nation were furious about the state’s poor choice of candidate. “Poor Alabama,” they lamented.
On December 12th, 2017, those same progressives stood astonished when Moore was narrowly defeated by Democratic candidate Doug Jones. Although Moore’s campaign immediately demanded a recount, Jones’ margin of victory - about 21,000 votes - was large enough to exceed the automatic recount differential of 14,000 votes. Of course, these facts certainly did not impede Moore, who pursued his claim regardless. After all, his actions have proven that he cannot tell the difference between 14 and 21 anyways.
While Alabamians may have been fortunate enough to avoid electing an alleged paedophile to the U.S. Senate, the phrase, “poor Alabama” still rings true — but for an entirely different reason. The Deep South state, oftentimes stereotyped as a Confederate-loving, gun-slinging conservative hotbed, is also infamous for its record-breaking levels of destitution. In Alabama, the sixth-poorest state in the country, nearly one million people - almost twenty percent of the population - lives below the poverty line.
This poverty was the subject of a recent United Nations investigation, spearheaded by NYU law professor and UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston. Over fifteen days, his team visited Alabama, California, Puerto Rico and West Virginia among other areas of the United States to construct a detailed report on the threat of destructive poverty and the protection of human rights, which often go overlooked in developed nations. “Some might ask why a UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights would visit a country as rich as the United States. But despite great wealth in the US, there also exists great poverty and inequality,” he commented. Even in the world’s wealthiest country, suffering cannot be avoided, and Alston’s findings prove that poverty in America is still both rampant and hugely damaging.
Alston’s travels revealed the different faces of poverty across the nation. His investigation found that minorities, unsurprisingly, were disproportionately vulnerable to poverty, with black, Hispanic and Native American citizens mostly likely to be victims of impoverishment. These minorities suffer from an intrinsic system of lower wages, fewer job opportunities and longer working hours, with a poverty rate two to three times higher than whites. However, Alston denotes it misleading to label present-day poverty as a problem for minorities. “The face of poverty in America is not only black or Hispanic but also white, Asian and many other colors,” he writes in his report — that our system of economic inequality is not a racial problem, but an American one.
The extent of the poverty prevalent in the country would appall most well-to-do American families. Beneath the facade of the “American Dream” of hard work and prosperity, millions of Americans’ dreams lie out-of-reach; broken and unfulfilled. In Alabama’s “Black Belt” counties (named after their fertile black soil, which had once brought great wealth in a long-past plantation era), formerly prosperous communities are a shell of their former self. With nearly forty percent of the population in Lowndes, Perry and Bullock counties below the poverty line, southern Alabama exemplifies the meager living conditions of poor Americans and the extreme hardships they face.
In some areas, residents’ septic tanks remain unconnected to public sewage systems, replaced by an inadequate homemade PVC pipe system, which empty into nearby ditches and waste grounds. However, these dangerous open-air systems are often so leaky that they contaminate community water supplies. Flooding - or even just light rain - can spread sewage water rapidly, leading to widespread disease. As a result of these poor sanitary practices, residents of Butler County, Alabama, often fall ill with E. coli and other infectious bacteria. This has even resulted in the reemergence of hookworm, a harmful parasite commonly associated with the developing world. While hookworm thrives in communities with poorer sanitation in South America, Southeast Asia and South Asia, it was thought to be eradicated in the United States over forty years ago. Now, its recording in nineteen Alabamians marks the first known American hookworm infection in decades. Dr. Rojelio Mejia of the Baylor College of Medicine explains that “poor U.S. communities with poor sanitation were at risk for "neglected tropical diseases, which we ordinarily think of as confined to developing countries." While this problem is easily solvable by improving sanitary practices, the average income in these counties is less than $20,000 a year — and a single septic tank costs $15,000.
The problems with poverty in the United States extend far beyond just sanitation, however. Others interviewed by Alston during his investigation had lost all of their teeth as a result of lacking dental care on their healthcare plans, while others did not have consistent electricity provided to their homes. Another time, he witnessed a homeless man being ordered to move by a police officer.
“Where to?” the man asked.
The officer had no answer.
“This is not a sight that one normally sees. I'd have to say that I haven't seen this [in the First World],” Alston wrote of his experiences. “There are pretty extreme levels of poverty in the United States given the wealth of the country. And that does have significant human rights implications.” Healthcare, access to high-speed Internet and a “decent standard of living” - which includes a working sewage system - are considered basic human rights by the United Nations, but still do not exist in many poorer areas of the country. The United States lags far behind the rest of the Western world in this aspect, with some of the weakest healthcare and welfare systems of any developed country. Since 1996, the amount of Americans on welfare has declined from 4.6 million to 1.1 million — but not for a good reason. The strength of American welfare has dwindled over time as U.S. government officials introduce barrier after barrier to their programs, including higher mandatory work regulations and more prohibitive time restrictions; all the while, their funding for public programs is quietly shrinking. This has created a sect of the population isolated from both the welfare system and the job market. Having used up their quota on welfare money, and lacking basic education, healthcare, shelter or sanitation, these Americans are essentially at a dead end — a bad look for the famed “land of prosperity” and the home of the “rags-to-riches entrepreneur”. Instead, the poor are stigmatized as “wasters” and “lazy” (despite that a full-time minimum wage job does not provide an individual enough to feed himself without the aid of food stamps) and welfare has become a “waste of taxpayer dollars” instead of a tool to protect basic human rights. America has the lowest social mobility out of any “first-world” country, indicating that poverty is not only widespread, but also ineradicable.
This brings Alston to a blunt conclusion: that political problems are the true cause of endemic poverty. “The idea of human rights is that people have basic dignity and that it’s the role of the government—yes, the government!—to ensure that no one falls below the decent level… civilized society doesn’t say for people to go and make it on your own and if you can’t, bad luck.” Unfortunately, if Alston’s reasoning holds valid, then poverty is certainly here to stay for the near future: Republicans have just passed sweeping tax reform, expected to increase the national deficit by $1 trillion in the next ten years. Their solution? To offset tax cuts, they choose to make the flimsy American safety net even thinner.
Premilla Nadasen of the Washington Post summarizes the situation aptly: “As children, our parents told us of starving African children as an effort to get us to finish our dinner — but that moniker is an overused cliche. Perhaps they would have been more persuasive had they said, ‘Finish your dinner. There’s a child just down the block who would love to have what’s on your plate.’”